Most killer whale or orca calves born at SeaWorld generally nurse for about a year, but may continue to nurse occasionally for as long as two years. This corresponds with observations in the wild. Orca calves observed at SeaWorld began nursing several hours after birth. SeaWorld understands the importance of keeping mothers and their dependent calves together - mothers provide support and nutrition, and we would not interfere with that unless the mother or calf’s life was in danger.
First successful nursing attempts ranged from 1.8 to 29.3 hours after birth. Calves nurse below water but close to the surface and do so when the mother glides in a horizontal position with her tail arched, while the calf swims on its side with its mouth on the right or left mammary gland.
Calves nurse for about 5 to 10 seconds at a time, several times an hour, 24 hours a day. Nursing frequency peaks the first day or two following birth, at about 45 minutes total average nursing time. As a calf becomes more adept at nursing and obtains more milk at each feeding, nursing time decreases dramatically to 10 minutes per day or less after three weeks and to 5 minutes or less by 2 months.
At SeaWorld, it’s possible that first-time mothers may learn how to nurse their young by observing this behavior in other mother whales. Additionally, trainers teach them how to respond when their calf attempts to nurse.